My entire life I’ve been a “rule follower.” In all my years of school, I served a total of zero detentions. I may have been grounded one time ever. My biggest offense as a teenager was rolling my eyes at my mother. Being this person who always does what she is “supposed to do” became my identity. I followed the rules because I thought I “should.” I followed them because they promised me a false sense of safety. I followed them in a desperate attempt to avoid rejection. To get praise. And to be “OK.” School rules, rules by my parents, cultural rules, and even food rules. Without realizing it though, I traded freedom for safety.
Deep in my eating disorder, I was a slave to a multitude of rules I’d created around food. Aware of these food rules, I proudly wore them as a badge of honor. Yet I didn’t understand they were actually keeping me a prisoner inside my own version of hell.
Where do food rules come from?
We live in a society steeped in diet culture. From the time I was a pigtailed little girl, I watched my mother apply constricting food rule after food rule. She was stuck in a never ending pursuit of the all elusive “thinness.” Like a revolving door that had no exit, she went around and around until she was so dizzy she couldn’t see straight. Blind to the truth that her worth was independent of her body shape or size.
The rules constantly changed but the gist was always the same. My mother bought every lie diet culture sold her. Hook. Line. And Sinker. I do not blame my mom; I have an enormous amount of empathy for her. She is a product of our society as well. Once a little girl, she also watched her mother confuse her body size with her worth.
When I think about it, I realize that food rules have been coming at me from every angle of my life for as long as I can remember.
The Weight Watchers propaganda screamed rules at me from the kitchen counters. The commercials on TV promised a new way to get the perfect life by shrinking your waist. And the friends at school told me (without ever saying a word out loud) that skipping lunch made you a better person. Even the labeling and advertising of food portraying “health” foods as morally good and “junk” foods as evil seeped into my unconscious.
As a pimply preteen, I read magazines as if they were the answer to my problems. Between the glossy photos of Ricky Schroeder and Michael J Fox, images of blond models with their ribs poking out smiled back at me. I read about their “diet secrets” and fell for the lie that a rice cakes tasted better than bread. (It really doesn’t.)
Yes, I got the toxic messages loud and clear – that when it comes to food, less is more. There is a “correct” way to eat and if you subscribe to it- you will be happier, more beautiful, and loved and admired by all.
The problem is: all of these food rules and promises are lies.
Why it’s time to break the food rules
If you subscribe to food rules long enough, you will pay the consequences. Whether you get stuck in the yo-yo diet cycle or fall into an agonizing eating disorder depends partially on genetics and partially on numerous other factors. Every single person has a unique set of personality traits, heredity, life circumstances, privileges, and oppressions. The outcomes vary but the common denominator is the same:
Food rules lead to suffering of one version or another.
They remind me of my favorite scene from The Wizard of Oz. When you hear, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” as Toto reveals the great and powerful Oz is actually just a mirage. Food rules are no different than the man on the screen making promises that simply can’t be delivered. They are empty promises. Sadly we believe that if we follow these rules, we will get the “perfect body.” People will admire us. Our lives will be wonderful. But these are lies.
When the rules take over
Not only are the food rules lies, but they come with a side of misery. As I sank deeper into my eating disorder, the food rules that promised me love and happiness failed to deliver.
Yes, my body shrunk with every new food rule I applied. But so did my life.
My joy to live shriveled as quickly as my pants size. The ability to focus and be present withered away along with my energy, my hope, and my joy. What started out as rules turned into laws I felt powerless to break.
Of course, all of this happened while I still lived in the delusion that following food rules was the key to my happiness. Dismantling and challenging the rules felt scary. Impossible. Yet, this was what every member of my treatment team insisted I must do, in order to take my life back. Finally realizing my life was miserable in the prison of the eating disorder, I accepted that breaking the rules was the key to my freedom.
But how do you break the food rules?
1. One rule at a time
That’s right. It is perfectly okay to start small.
Just make sure that one after another, you break a food rule.
Maybe your rule is you don’t eat after 7:00. Break that rule and eat at 7:05. Or perhaps you only allow yourself brown rice. Get the white rice. Always have an apple as your snack? Try a banana. It may feel terrifying. Do it anyway.
The only way to learn that breaking the rules is doable is by breaking the rules. As you challenge each rule, you will slowly start to gain your life back.
2. Be mindful of your thoughts
As you break the rules, you will likely be terrified. That is because you believed the rules kept you safe. But that is a lie. You have to remind yourself over and over and over again. The rules have kept you imprisoned in a life that is filled with suffering.
By choosing to break the food rules, you are choosing to take your life back.
This takes courage. It takes persistence. And it takes strength. The good news is- you have all of these things warrior. You have been using these qualities to follow the rules that society sold you. Now that you know better, it is time to use these qualities to fight the eating disorder.
The truth is: food rules keep your life small. Breaking food rules sets you free.
3. Keep going with compassion and resilience
Learning to break free from an eating disorder requires we let go of the illusion of perfection. There really is no such thing as a perfect anything. No perfect body that will guarantee happiness. And no perfect way to eat that results in a pain-free life. Life is messy, filled with ups and downs. None of us get through without hurt, loss, pain, and suffering. The good news is- each time we face a difficulty we have a chance to learn, grow, and expand. The choice is ours. And it is much easier to face these challenges when you are no longer living within the suffocating walls that food rules build.
Maybe you struggle to challenge a food rule. Give yourself compassion. Beating yourself up will only make you run towards the rules faster. This is hard work. Give yourself grace. And then try again.
4. Accept support
Doing this work is terrifying, but you do not have to do it alone. Confide in a safe person who is on your side. Perhaps they can break the food rule right along side of you. Reach out for support. Whether it is a treatment team, a recovery buddy, a coach, or a loved one who “gets it,” allow them to be on your side.
The beauty of breaking the rules
Breaking the rules will be terrifying and takes a leap of faith to jump into the pool of true freedom. The great news is once you get used to the water, you will not want to get out and return to a life imprisoned by rules. And as you start living your life free of food rules, your eyes will become opened to other rules in your life you have blindly subscribed to.
As I emerged from the eating disorder that stunted my growth for years, other nonfood related rules I’d mindlessly accepted became clear. I felt empowered to question rules I’d simply accepted as truths. I started examining the rules I’d internalized about what makes a “good mother,” a “good friend,” a “good daughter,” and a “good wife.” Breaking free of ridiculous rules I blindly accepted in the past meant reconnecting with my intuition. It meant learning I could say “no” and actually make choices that filled me with energy and purpose. Most of all- it meant I could trust myself.
Instead of doing things because I believed I “should” or I was “supposed to,” I began making decisions based on my gut and my heart.
When you step into this space, the real magic of recovery begins to unfold. Every ounce of struggle and pain is worth going through. Because on the other side of the rules is the life you were truly meant to live.